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Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) Information

Quick Tips #309

Health officials around the world are continuing the push to learn more about avian influenza (bird flu). Bird flu is a disease caused by strains of influenza virus that primarily affects birds. The viruses are categorized based on their genetic makeup, impact on bird health and other factors. In the late 1990s, a new strain of bird flu arose that was remarkable for its ability to cause severe disease and death, especially in domesticated birds such as ducks, chickens and turkeys. As a result, this strain was called highly pathogenic (meaning very severe and contagious) avian influenza and termed H5N1.

Just as there are for humans, there are different strains of influenzas for birds. Some of these strains are worse or more severe than others. Most often there are no signs a bird is infected. But in some cases the viruses are highly pathogenic meaning they kill chickens and turkeys quickly and they spread quickly. In the poultry industry, the highly contagious virus can be easily transmitted between farms by mechanical means including contaminated equipment and vehicles, feed, cages and/or clothing.

Since December 2014, the U.S. has seen highly pathogenic cases of H5N8 and H5N2 strains in domestic poultry in sixteen states. Those same strains as well as a H5N1 strain have been discovered in wild birds. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the H5N8 virus started in Asia and spread among wild bird migratory pathways in 2014. The virus has mixed with other bird flu strains in North America, which has resulted in what the USDA calls new “mixed origin” viruses. The H5N1 seen in North America is not the same virus that has been seen in Asia, Europe and Africa.

A relatively new strain of bird flu has also been identified in China - the influenza A virus H7N9. This new strain is different from the H5N1 bird flu virus and seems to be genetically unstable. Since its discovery in 2013, at least 48 different subtypes of H7N9 have been identified.

At first, bird flu was thought only to infect wild and domestic bird populations and not humans. However some of the strains such as H5N1 and H7N9 have caused serious infections in people. These cases have been largely confined to Southeast Asia and Africa. One of the more common means of contracting the virus is through the inhalation of dried/pulverized fecal matter from an infected bird.

For people who might have had contact with the H5N1virus, the infectious period is seven days after resolution of fever in adults and 21 days after onset of illness in children. The median time between exposure and onset of illness is three days and can range from two to four days. Symptoms are similar to other flu types and include fever, malaise, sore throat and cough. In certain cases, victims also might develop conjunctivitis.

There is no evidence that the virus can spread from one human to another. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts warn that if it ever spreads person to person, it could cause a worldwide pandemic. As compared with an annual flu that people typically encounter, a pandemic flu occurs three or four times a century and can occur in any season. A pandemic infection rate can affect anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of the population, and is usually associated with more severe illness and a high risk of death.

Decontamination and isolation techniques are suggested for people culling, transporting or disposing of infected birds, as well as for people in the healthcare industry who might have contact with the virus. People should choose and use the appropriate level of personal protective equipment (PPE), which might include dust- and fluid-resistant protective garments/clothing, gloves, overshoes that can be disinfected or disposed of, goggles and respiratory protection. The minimum form of respiratory protection that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests is an N95, N99 or N100 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved, disposable particulate respirator.

The most basic method to control the spread of infection is proper hand hygiene practices such as washing the hands thoroughly with soap and clean running water for 15-20 seconds. If hand-washing facilities are not readily available, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at last 60 percent alcohol is suggested.

Research on vaccines against avian influenza viruses is ongoing. Antiviral drugs are being produced and stockpiled to help limit the symptoms and potentially reduce the disease's opportunity to spread.

As a general precaution, people should avoid wild birds and observe them only from a distance. They should also avoid contact with domestic birds (poultry) that appear ill or have died and avoid contact with surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from wild or domestic birds.

Commonly Asked Questions
Q. What is bird flu?
A: Bird flu is an infection caused by avian (bird) influenza (flu) viruses. These viruses occur naturally among birds. Wild birds throughout the world carry the viruses in their intestines and will usually not get sick from them. However, bird flu is very contagious among birds and can possibly sicken or kill domesticated birds such as chickens, ducks and turkeys. There are three main types of influenza: A, B and C. The virus that causes bird flu is influenza A.
Q. What are bird flu symptoms?
A: Reported symptoms of avian influenza in humans have ranged from normal influenza-like symptoms (cough, sore throat, fever and muscle aches) to eye infections, acute respiratory distress, pneumonia, viral pneumonia and other severe, life-threatening complications.
Q. What are the antiviral agents for bird flu?
A: Some antiviral drugs that could potentially treat or prevent bird flu are clinically effective against uncomplicated influenza A infection, but they might have limitations. In addition, these drugs are expensive and supplies are limited. Authorities have stockpiled the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which seems to be an effective antiviral agent against bird flu. Studies are under way to prove its effectiveness and the effectiveness of other antiviral agents such as Oseltamavir, Zanamavir and Relenza.
Q. What is used to clean/disinfect surfaces within the healthcare industry that have been exposed to the virus?
A: According to the World Health Organization's interim infection-control guidelines for healthcare facilities, the virus is inactivated by 70 percent alcohol and by chlorine. Therefore, cleaning environmental surfaces with a neutral detergent followed by a disinfectant solution is recommended.

World Health Organization – Avian Influenza

United States Department of Agriculture – Avian Influenza

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Avian Influenza A (H7N9) Virus

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention NIOSH Alert - Protecting Poultry Workers From Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

(Rev. 6/2015)

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Please Note:
The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This publication is not a substitute for review of the current applicable government regulations and standards specific to your location and business activity, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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